June 29

Dealing with Isolation

It’s a strange world we’re living in. This pandemic has had more of an impact on society than anything else in recent memory. It’s affected every country, every city, every individual in some way. Probably the biggest impact is that it has fragmented society, breaking up large gatherings like concerts and parties, and kept people isolated from each other.

For creative people, this can be a mixed blessing. I think it’s safe to say that a large number of us are introverts, or if you’re like me, an introvert at heart. I kinda like being alone with my thoughts, letting all those ‘what if?’ scenarios play out in my imagination. Spending more time alone gives me more time to write, to brainstorm, to explore and experiment. In fact, over the past few months I’ve been more productive than ever before.

But I know that hasn’t been the same result for everyone. Isolation can also be detrimental. Some people need at least a little human interaction to maintain their sanity. I get it. Personally, I’m okay with FaceTime and WebX, texting and phone calls, but I’ll admit it’d be nice to sit around with some friends, have a few drinks, and enjoy some good conversation. Face-to-face conversations allow for better interaction, there’s body language involved and less lag to deal with.

We’re lucky in that we have this level of technology that allows us to interact on an intimate level, face-to-face, in real time. During the Spanish Flu pandemic from one-hundred years ago, they were socially distancing for real. There wasn’t streaming video on-demand, or music services, or Zoom video chats. These people – at least the ones who cared enough – hunkered down in their homes, many by candlelight, and made the best of the situation.

It’s sobering to think about how those people dealt with it all, and managed to survive, when so many people today are up in arms about being inconvenienced. They have no clue as to how bad it could be.

But still, isolation can be tough. Right now, I’m been at home with my partner and our dogs for just over four months, with no end in sight. When I’m not on the clock, I focus on being creative. The way I see it, I have more free time now that I don’t have to commute, make lunch, go to social events, or just wander a shopping center. Being at home 24/7 has given me an opportunity and I don’t want to waste it.

My partner, on the other hand, gets a little stir crazy every few days. She loads the dogs in the car and goes for drives through the neighborhoods, getting some air and giving the dogs a chance to bark at the neighborhood cats. It’s not much, but they all enjoy it. She spends a lot of her free time exercising. That’s what she’s taking advantage of while she has the time.

And that’s what I think is important here. Isolation, being stuck at home, doesn’t have to drive you crazy. Find a way to take advantage of it. If you’re creative, then this is the perfect chance for you to work on that novel, learn to paint, play an instrument, arrange flowers. You can still interact with people online and get at least a bit of social interaction.

But just because you can’t go to Starbucks or wander around in the local super store doesn’t mean all is lost. Use that time and energy to do something positive. Plant a garden, learn to sew, write a song using nothing but spoons as your musical instrument, teach yourself some card tricks.

Trust me, this will be good for you, for your mental health, for your physical health. Besides, once all this is over with, you’ll have some cool skills to show your friends!

RB

 

June 24

Traditional Vs. Non-Traditional

When I was a younger man (which wasn’t THAT long ago, thank you very much), it was harder for a writer to get published than it is today. Commercial print magazines and traditional publishing houses ruled the writing world. Your average fiction writer had to comb through the newsstands to find magazines that might be interested in their work, type cover letters, buy envelopes (oversized so your manuscript wasn’t folded) and postage, then sit and wait. And it was very likely you’d never hear back from the editor.

Getting a book published wasn’t any easier. You couldn’t simply email a manuscript to an agent. You had to got through the same thing as magazine submissions – try and find an agent and mail him your best pitch, along with the first chapter of your magnum opus. Then there was the waiting. And more than likely you wouldn’t even receive the courtesy of a ‘thanks, but no thanks,” letter.

Of course, there was always vanity publishing. These were small publishing houses that you could pay to print your book. It wasn’t cheap and they generally made you pay for a specific number of volumes up front to make it worth their time and effort. Quality of the final product was also a problem.

As the internet began to snake its tendrils across the world, non-traditional publishing began to make an appearance. People posted on message boards, then came ‘zines. Anyone remember them? These were little twenty to thirty-page booklets, usually colored printer paper folded in half and stapled on the seam. They were low-budget labors of love with cheap websites and erratic printing schedules that published short fiction, poetry, and illustrations.

Fast-forward a decade or so and we arrive at online book publishing. The writer can now cut out the middle-man, avoid the hassle of contracts and negotiations, and publish what they want, when they want. Quality is going to vary far more than with traditional publishing, but it does provide for a wider variety of stories, styles, and voices. Writers who stories would never have seen the light of day twenty years ago can now reach an audience. Personally, I think the pros outweigh the cons.

For what it’s worth, I’ve done both. I’ve been published in commercial magazines and wrote a non-fiction book (written under contract) for a smaller publishing house. I’ve also been published in ‘zines (anyone remember them?), on fiction websites, and I’ve self-published a collection of my short stories.

Recently, I was thinking about the debate between traditional vs. independent publishing. For many writers, the traditional route is the only legitimate way to go. They like traveling the long road, working with editors, agents, marketing people, and jumping through all the hoops. Even publishing on a smaller scale – commercial magazines – there’s the wait for a response.

In my experience, that’s one of the most frustrating aspects of traditional publishing…waiting for someone to get back to you. In fact, looking back over my submission tracker (a Numbers spreadsheet), I can see that almost half the stories I’ve submitted over the years have disappeared like an errant sock in the clothes dryer. I never heard back, the stories apparently sucked into some publishing black hole.

Still, I can see the appeal that come with traditional publishing. I mean, that’s how most of our idols were published. That’s what many of us were brought up with, hearing about Stephen King or J.K. Rowling getting those sweet, sweet book deals and raking in millions. Who wouldn’t want that, right?

But it’s like acting. Not too long ago I read an article that showed how the average career of a professional actor is two years. That’s it. That’s the average. So for every Meryl Streep or Morgan Freeman, you’ve got hundreds of Carls who got two or three speaking roles in a some low-budget B movies and now works at Rent-a-Center. Not that I’m picking on the Carls. They tried. That’s worth something.

For most writers, we’re never going to get the attention of an agent and end up with a contract at Penguin or RandomHouse. And it’s not for a lack of talent or effort. That’s just how it goes. It’s a chaotic, random universe. Some of us find the sweet spot on occasion, the rest of us continue to do our best in relative obscurity.

So non-traditional publishing offers an opportunity for the rest of us to get our shot at having someone we aren’t related to read our work. There’s still a chance our story or collection of poems may sit and languish on a cyber-bookshelf, but we at least got a chance to show it to the world. That’s what really matters. Besides, just because someone gets published by one of the big publishing houses doesn’t mean their book is going to sell. You’ve seen the stacks of remainder books in the bookstores, the ones marked down from $19.99 to ninety-nine cents. Nothing is guaranteed.

In my humble opinion, I don’t see much of a difference between traditional and non-traditional publishing. In both cases, writers are being published and stories are going out into the world. That’s the point, isn’t it? To see our names in print, to share our imaginations, to maybe entertain someone for a little while. That’s all I care about. If I make a little money or maybe sign a couple of copies, that’s icing on the cake.

And one last thing: I think that people sometimes put too much emphasis on getting published. They believe they aren’t a “real writer” unless they have a book on a shelf or a story printed in a magazine. That’s just wrong. If you’re putting words on the page, either handwritten or typed, you’re a writer. It’s that simple. Publishing will happen for you eventually. Just continue to write.

RB

 

June 22

Literally Metaphorical

Do you remember when you were studying literature in school and the instructors would talk about all the metaphors in the stories? One instance I remember was when an associate professor was discussing a story in which the author had a character walk into a room that was painted blue. He asked the class what the blue room meant. Most of us replied that it meant nothing more than the room was blue. His response was something like, “Yes, the room is blue, but what does that MEAN?”

The discussion then devolved into a weird pinball argument about whether or not the author was depressed, or it signified the protagonist was depressed, or a longing for clear skies, or perhaps an obsession with the author’s mother who may have had blue eyes. Yeah, that was an interesting afternoon.

At the time it had me wonder about metaphors in fiction. Specifically, do authors insert metaphors on purpose? Is it a conscious act, thought out in advance? Or does it happen organically and unconsiously?

Personally, I’ve never thought much about metaphors when I’m writing. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do think about them on occasion, but not too deeply. For example, in my short story I use a chess piece, the knight (horse piece) as a connection to home for my protagonist. It’s mentioned at the beginning of the story, then later at the end to tie things back together.

The thing is, when I went back and reread the story after letting it rest for a few days, I realized I had some deeper metaphors embedded in the narrative, things I hadn’t planned to do. Weird, right? And not just because I did this, but also because I hadn’t noticed it in earlier stories I’d written.

So I went and reread some of the stories I’d written in the past few years and, sure enough, I found metaphors I hadn’t consciously added to the narratives. Mind. Blown.

Which brings me back to my earlier question – do authors use metaphors consciously or unconsciously? Or is it a mix? It seems to me that using them on purpose would somehow dilute them or make them feel forced, but I’m also a writer who tends to let my stories tell themselves without much pre-planning.

This is definitely something that needs more research, if only to satisfy my curiosity.

RB

June 19

Busy, Busy, Busy…

I’ve been keeping myself busy over the past few months. In addition to my blog and fiction writing, I’ve been keeping up with my (mostly) bi-weekly creativity podcast and started posting cooking videos on YouTube.

In addition to that, I just published another collection of short fiction, Reflections in Blue Water. This is my first official foray into mainstream fiction. I’m not giving up on my odder stories, but I feel it’s good practice as a writer to work outside my comfort zone every now and then.

And if that’s not enough to keep me out of trouble, I’m playing around with some audio/visual experiments. I’ll post the results to my YouTube channel once I get something tangible put together.

I think it’s important to stay busy as a writer and creator. It keeps the imagination active and flexible, helps to keep the fires burning hot. Like muscles and other parts of the body, if you don’t use it you may lose it.

And if nothing else, I hope that my creativity and drive helps to inspire others to do the same. I know I’m not the most creative individual or the most talented, but I’m not afraid to try new things, to explore new ideas, or to make mistakes. Creativity is all about trying regardless of the outcome.

I hope you feel the same way.

RB

June 17

Words and Images

There’s something to be said for the way words and images compliment each other. They’ve been partners for thousands of years. In fact, some of the earliest writing was simply pictures. So, in a way, images gave birth to words.

I think that images can add another level of depth to a story or poem. For most of us, when we read something we immediately form an image in our mind of a character’s appearance, or what a setting looks like. Words are like different colors of paint, and they all come together to form a beautiful picture.

A great example of this comes from one of my inspirations, Shel Silverstein. He was a writer, poetry, songwriter, and illustrator. You may be familiar with some of his more popular works, The Giving Tree or Where the Sidewalk Ends. With both of these books, and most of his other output, Silverstein wrote all the content and drew all the illustrations. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, he illustrated each and every poem. They’re just simple line drawings, but they capture the essence of each poem so perfectly.

I’m always in awe of people with a talent for drawing and painting. I used to draw quite a bit, but I ended up focusing more on writing and let the sketch pad sit on a shelf and collect dust. I wasn’t bad at it, but I wasn’t that great. But that wasn’t why I let is slide. I simply wanted to spend more time with words than images.

Now that I’ve entered the self-publishing arena, I’m finding that my interest in visual arts is being rekindled. For my first short story collection I created the cover and had a blast doing it. I found a great photo with a creative commons license, then manipulated it to compliment the content of the book. I think it turned out to be the perfect cover. And because it was so much fun, I’m going to create the cover for my next collection.

Of course, it’s not just illustrations that compliment words, it’s also photography. One of the best short story collections I’ve read was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, who was inspired by old photo postcards he found in second-hand stores. He’d read the cryptic messages on the back, examine the photos and images on the front, then write a short story.

I did something similar with an artist friend a year or so back. She and I would find random images, then we’d each have to create something based on that image. She’d draw or paint, I’d write, but we’d do it separately so we didn’t know what the other was creating. It was a fun exercise and we ended up with some fantastic output. In fact, on more than one occasion we both created something similar, where her image would match up with what I’d written. Artistic minds on the same wave length.

Words and images are like salt and pepper, bacon and eggs, beer and pretzels. They can stand alone, but they work much better when together.

RB

 

 

June 15

Loss and Understanding

A friend of mine died this weekend. She collapsed at home and never regained consciousness. As far as I know, she hadn’t been ill or complaining of any issues. It was one of those instances where the light switch is flicked and the lights go out. If nothing else, I’m glad it was quick and painless for her.

And yeah, it hurts. We weren’t close friends, but we’d known each other for twenty years, worked in the same office, gave each other hell and made each other laugh. Even on stressful days, she could come up with a quip that would crack me up and break the tension. She moved to another job across town a few years ago and we kept in touch sporadically, but she never left my thoughts.

But this got me thinking about loss, about death, about how much time I have left. This woman was a few years younger than me, so in her late forties. That’s still youngish, outside of the “well, they had a good run” age range. It’s one of those instances that caught me off guard like a sudden slap in the face. It’s like the universe is saying, “Hey, wake up!” 

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutia of our lives, to become myopic and only see things from one biased perspective. We forget to be grateful for the things we have, the good things in our lives. Like I tell my partner, we often get focused on the bad things, the inconvenient things, that occur in our lives and end up ignoring all the good. In my opinion, the good always outweighs the bad. We just have to open our eyes.

This is also a reminder that it’s a chaotic universe and shit happens for no reason whatsoever. But that’s not a reason to give up hope or succumb to existential angst. The secret is to offset the unpleasantness of life with positivity, with random acts of kindness, with empathy, with self-awareness and understanding how our actions affect others. 

We have to appreciate every moment and not let trivial things ruin our days. Someone cutting you off in traffic or being rude to you on the phone are such minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of things. Just shrug it off and move on. Offset it by being nice to the next person you encounter. Believe me, it helps.

I hope you can take some time today, and every day, to be grateful for the good things in your lives. Appreciate it while you can. Our lives are just a blip on the universal radar, so make the most of it.

RB